Why I Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Too)

Posted on 08 July 2010

The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.
– Toulmin’s Law of Composition, by British philosopher, author and educator Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009)

On twitter, I recently came across a tweet and a blog post in which the writers both suggested that grammar isn’t important.

It’s a common enough opinion. I happen to disagree with it. As a marketing consultant and a professional copywriter and editor, I care passionately about words and grammar – they’re the tools of my trade.

“On Twitter, spelling, grammar & punctuation don’t really count…”

I recently spotted this tweet: “On Twitter, spelling, grammar & punctuation don’t really count as long as we convey something of value.”

“What?!”, I spluttered. I say spelling, grammar and punctuation are important in ANY written communication, whether on twitter or anywhere else. They help us to convey “something of value”, and they make a crucial difference to the message and how it’s received, understood and acted upon by the recipient. (Compare “Let’s eat, Grandma.” with “Let’s eat Grandma.”)

Most (although certainly not all) tweets and twitter accounts, whether for an individual, a company, a non-profit organisation, a city…, have an explicit marketing purpose. The tweeter’s goal is to attract followers and influence readers to change their attitudes, change their behaviour, support a cause, join a tribe, buy a product, recommend a service, visit a tourist destination…

I expect marketing communications material to be well written and compelling, and to present a professional image. Why should it be any different on twitter? Just because there’s a 140-character limit, that’s no excuse for poor writing. Whether you like it or not, every written message does communicate something about you, your values and your brand, even while you’re sleeping (see my article, “Every Document is a Marketing Document”).

Sure, the occasional mistake is forgivable (“Well, barely,” she said, gritting her teeth), but consistently poor spelling, grammar and punctuation undermine your credibility and damage your brand.

I called on grammar geeks on twitter to comment on that “On Twitter, spelling, grammar & punctuation don’t really count…” tweet, and Marci Diehl responded: “I say spelling, grammar & punctuation are a reflection of your quality, credibility and care in your business. Anywhere.”

Amen, Marci.

“Why I Don’t Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Stop Worrying)”

Someone I follow on twitter, Jane Friedman, tweeted a link to her blog post, “Why I Don’t Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Stop Worrying)”

In that blog post, Jane wrote: “…if I have a pet peeve with writers (both beginning and published), it’s their unrelenting obsession & unforgiving attitude toward errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.” She continued: “…I hate to see a new/beginning writer worry about grammar, or even apologize in advance that their grammar isn’t perfect. I really don’t care as long as the language isn’t getting in the way of understanding and enjoying the story.”

I posted this comment: “I disagree. I’m certainly not saying that perfect grammar (or even reasonably good grammar) automatically means the story is well told. And of course it’s sometimes completely valid, artistically, to bend or even break the rules of grammar (the best writers know how to do that effectively). However, poor grammar definitely does get in the way of my understanding and enjoyment of a story (or even of a tweet). Grammar IS important in communicating a compelling, meaningful message; it adds to clarity. I think writers need to know how language works; they need to be able to diagnose what works and what doesn’t work in a sentence, and they need to know how to fix it. Too often, publishing companies do not devote the necessary editing resources to fixing poor writing, so writers shouldn’t depend on them to do that.”

If you want your readers to understand, enjoy and be convinced by your writing…

By the way, check out my recent blog post, “Grammar Tip: Catch That Dangling Clause!”, in which I wrote: “Good grammar and spelling don’t magically, all by themselves, make a piece of writing good, but poor grammar and spelling make it hard for readers to understand, enjoy and be convinced by your writing.”

And in related news, see “60 Embarrassing Ways to Butcher the English Language: Isn’t Spelling Important Anymore?” by Jackie Tithof Steere.

What do YOU think?


17 responses to Why I Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Too)

  • […] The writer understands grammar, spelling and syntax, yet instinctively or consciously knows how to break the rules in order to create a desired effect. Here are two of my blog posts about grammar: “Grammar Tip: Catch That Dangling Clause!” and “Why I Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Too)”. […]

  • The 140-character limit on tweets should be seen as a challenge in brevity. Force yourself to get your point across eloquently, within a character limit, while only using proper grammar and standardized abbreviations (i.e. w/, &, @, etc.). If you’ve typed something out and it exceeds the character limit, then work around it, put a different spin on it, try to find a more concise way of making your point. You’ll find that clichés disappear and are replaced with originality, you’ll realize the pointlessness of excessive adjectives and adverbs, and you’ll learn to respect the punchiness of a 140-character statement. It’s a powerful lesson that will trickle into everything else that you write, be it fiction or e-mails.

    Grammar is always important. Everywhere. Without exaggeration, the ability to communicate effectively is one of the primary faculties that has allowed mankind to rise to where it now stands. And yes, strangely, it would appear that twitter now has influence over this important aspect of our existence.

    In this way, I’m sort of like Batman and you’re sort of like Commissioner Gordon, eh Kay?

    –PPNY

    • kay says:

      Welcome, Batman! Yes, I love the creativity and discipline of crafting a compelling (and grammatical) message in 140 characters – as you say, it’s good training for all sorts of writing.

  • Kay —

    Like Tom, I agree to a point. I certainly believe that proper grammar and spelling are essential for professional writers — particularly native English speakers. And I agree that all documents are ‘marketing documents’. It’s a matter of your own professional image and of good customer service.

    What makes it difficult for me as a language coach for second-language speakers working on a hotline for a multinational corporation is that we need to strike a balance. If someone’s message gets through despite grammar mistakes, then it works. It’s not ideal — and I work constantly with my colleagues to help them polish their language to sound more professional — but it works. In a world where most English speakers are non-native, I really believe we need to be tolerant for the sake of communication.

    • kay says:

      Thanks Deborah. Sure, if your colleagues can communicate a reasonably coherent, sensible message despite a few grammatical mistakes, then you could say that their communication works, at least on one level. But my post was specifically about written messages, not spoken messages. And I believe that effective communication isn’t just about the surface-level meaning of a message; it’s also about the image/brand that the company projects – that’s where my passion for marketing kicks in. And it annoys me when corporations spend lots of money on glossy brochures and full-page newspaper ads and whizz-bang websites, but can’t be bothered to have their text written (or at least edited) by a professional copywriter who is a native speaker of the language. That would apply to text in any language, not just English, by the way.

  • Shobha says:

    After rewriting my work, I return to it, focussing completely on grammar, and on the mistakes and ambiguity in the text; as a result of it. But,I have also noticed that very often writers (including myself) avoid using the semi-colon, simply because they don’t know how to use it.

    Please inform if I have used the semi-colon correctly?

  • kay says:

    An update: via twitter, I just came across a very funny blog post by Paddy Donnelly (he’s on twitter at http://twitter.com/paddydonnelly) titled “Learn To Fucking Spell” – see http://iampaddy.com/spell/

  • Rachel says:

    This is so true! I work as a freelance copywriter and proofreader and I’m constantly astounded by how little some people care about their use of grammar. I am proud to be considered a pedant – it’s what makes me good at my job!

    • kay says:

      Pedants unite! Yes Rachel, it’s what makes us good at what we do. Like a pianist who practises scales, we study grammar, language, communication, psychology, marketing…

  • Nikki says:

    Hi Kay

    I couldn’t agree with you more… Good writing isn’t defined by punctuation alone. However, it is part of the whole picture that you present to the world.

    As a copywriter, I sometimes bend grammar rules for a specific effect. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, as I always say, you need to know the rules to break them.

    It annoys me when people disregard grammar and punctuation rules, leaving you to decipher what they are trying to say. Writing has to have an honesty about it … a clarity. Otherwise, meaning is lost. And whether you like it or not, good grammar is pivotal to clear meaning. Surely, that’s what writing is all about?

    If a reader has to work hard to understand you because of the way you’ve written something, then you are doing yourself a disservice and showing contempt for the reader as well.

    Interstingly, I sometimes come across spelling errors on copywriters’ blogs. To me, this is unforgivable. If you present a piece of writing to the world as a writer, then you owe it to your profession and to yourself to proofread before hand. It’s about professional integrity at the end of the day.

    • kay says:

      Thanks Nikki. I agree; we need to understand the rules in order to break them for a deliberate effect. I’m thinking of writing a blog post about what makes a piece of writing “good”, quite apart from grammar, spelling and punctuation. Any ideas?

  • Jennifer says:

    Interesting post and point of view.

    I too recently wrote an article similar to Jane Friedman’s, about how I believe that we shouldn’t focus so much on excellent grammar and spelling if it doesn’t get in the way of our understanding.

    I think I feel this way because I have grown up around a lot of people who aren’t brilliant at grammar and spelling. And not just as a result of laziness, but because at school, we were rarely taught exactly how grammar works. Grammar is complicated. I write for the web myself, and constantly feel under incredible pressure, even on Twitter, to punctuate and spell everything perfectly.

    So for those who can’t achieve that, there’s a good chance that they just won’t try. I think it’s a shame for those people, who might actually be very good communicators, to not put their message out there because of the inevitable mistake-spotting that follows.

    Additionally, while I agree (and point out in my post) that grammar can have an effect on our understanding, I think that this is often irrelevant. In you example, if someone really had written, “let’s eat grandma” – you can use your experience and the context of the phrase to deduce that the writer probably wasn’t suggesting that they actually ingest their grandmother. Picking someone up on their misuse of apostrophes and commas will only dissuade them from writing again.

    Marketing is a whole other ball game and you’re absolutely right, spelling and grammar is crucially important here. But a lot of the writing people do on Twitter is not ‘self-marketing’ in that sense, so why should we scrutinise their writing so harshly?

    • kay says:

      Thanks Jennifer. I think the problem is that poor grammar and spelling often DO get in the way of our understanding. And I think it’s insulting of writers to expect their readers to do all the work of deciphering their incoherent writing. As for the sentences “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma”, they mean two different things. If you mean “Let’s eat grandma”, then write that; if you don’t, then don’t. My point about marketing was that most tweets (at least by the people I follow) are written for an explicit marketing purpose, so I do have higher expectations about them. Do you have a link to your recent post? I’d like to read it.

  • I agree up to a point. If your aim is to communicate or persuade, or build up your image as a professional, then good spelling and grammar are essential. Certainly, you should never let through avoidable errors.

    Sometimes, errors are unavoidable, as with dyslexia. I have a friend with a PhD who can’t spell for toffee. You have to cut people some slack if they really can’t get their heads round it.

    Personally I like to break the rules to signify a different tone of voice. Just as I might not shave or wear a tie at the weekend, so I break grammar rules to denote a relaxed frame of mind.

    For example, a client of mine always spells ‘probably’ as ‘probly’ in emails – a charming habit that I’ve picked up myself, because it indicates we’re friendly with each other although we’ve only met once.

    I also break grammar rules when required to make a point, or to achieve a forcefulness of language I can’t get otherwise. As a copywriter, you have to use all the tools at your disposal, including rule-breaking – but you do it in an informed way.

    However, one thing I can’t stand is l33t sp34k and SMS-style abbreviations. So irrit8ing!

    • kay says:

      Oh, absolutely, Tom, I agree – bending or breaking the rules of grammar is perfectly acceptable, in fact it’s even essential, when it’s done for artistic or marketing reasons, in order to elicit the desired response from readers. Good writers know how to do that deliberately and effectively; bad writers don’t. So yes, copywriters must use all the tools at their disposal. (And I’m guessing that your friend with dyslexia asks someone to proofread his academic articles before publication, right?)

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